Rams have everybody back on improving defense

ST. LOUIS (AP) Relatively speaking, Gregg Williams has it easy in his second season as St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator.

Unlike the offense, which has a new quarterback, three line replacements and a rookie running back on the mend, there are no fresh faces that must be integrated into a unit that made great strides the last two-thirds of 2014. During practices, the constant barks of encouragement right after the snap - ''Come on!'' - are being delivered to a cast he knows oh so well.

''There's an understanding of how we go about doing things,'' Williams said. ''There's more familiarity with them and there's more familiarity for me, too.''

The Rams are the only team in the NFL with all 11 starters back and expected to start in 2015, according to STATS. There are a couple of pseudo-starters returning, too: Cornerback Trumaine Johnson made five starts last year after returning from a knee injury, and end William Hayes made nine starts after Chris Long was sidelined by a foot injury.

For several years, Rams defenders have aspired to top 10 status. There should be no better time to make that jump given the nuances in Williams' system now are familiar.

''I've had some really good ones,'' Williams said. ''They have the makings of it.''

Last year the Rams were inconsistent defensively and finished 17th overall while going 6-10, the 10th straight season without a winning record for the franchise.

''We're not trying to learn a new playbook,'' said end Robert Quinn, who leads the pass rush. ''It kind of clicks back and it's easier to recognize. I think this season could have something special.''

The defensive line has a solid group of former first-round draft picks, plus middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Janoris Jenkins were high second-rounders.

''Sky's the limit. I've said that a couple years in a row here and it really is,'' Long said. ''With Gregg calling the plays and with the talent we've amassed and the cohesiveness that this unit has, we can do anything we want to do.''

Quinn, Laurinaitis, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, tackle Michael Brockers and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod started every game in 2014. Ogletree, who has led the Rams in tackles both of his NFL seasons, has started each game in those two years. Entering his seventh season, Laurinaitis has never missed a start.

Jenkins, whose five career defensive touchdowns are tied for the franchise record, has made 43 starts his first three seasons. Cornerback E.J. Gaines, sidelined lately by a leg injury, made 15 starts stepping in for Johnson after coming in as a sixth-round pick.

Tackle Aaron Donald was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, leading rookies with nine sacks, and made 10 starts.

''I really believe he just scratched the surface last year,'' Williams said. ''He knows every snap he has a chance to win and he's motivated by that.''

There's also quality depth. Tackle Nick Fairley started all 23 games when healthy the last two years with Detroit, and linebacker Akeem Ayers has 48 career starts in five seasons with Tennessee and New England.

The challenge will be avoiding a slow start like last year, when the Rams had no sacks in the first five games; they piled up 40 sacks in the final 11 games. The fix was simple: a better job against the run, and unleashing the pass rush.

''When we finally figured out that that's what you've got to do in this league, we were able to get after the passer and got hot,'' Laurinaitis said. ''So, really, it forces everyone to be accountable.

''We know that all 11 have to be on the same page to play great team defense and to be where we expect, and that's a top five defense.''

St. Louis allowed individual 100-yard games each of the first three weeks, and the Rams struggled to a 1-3 start. When things improved, the pass rush was especially dominant in a two-week period late in the year, totaling 13 sacks in shutouts over the Raiders and Redskins.

A difficult early schedule could complicate matters this year, and the defense will be tested quickly. Beginning with the NFC champion Seahawks, four of the first five opponents are playoff teams that won at least 11 games in 2014.

The Rams will be leaning on the defense considering all the changes they've made on offense. They're banking on tackle Rob Havenstein, a second-round pick, and guard Jamon Brown, a third-rounder, doing their part to keep new quarterback Nick Foles upright. There's a three-way battle at center.

Running back Todd Gurley, the 10th overall pick, is rehabbing from surgery that cut short his final college season and it's uncertain when he'll be ready.

''We've got to try to pitch a shutout every week,'' Long said. ''It's not going to happen, but you shoot for that. And it's going to happen a couple of times.''

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